World Wetlands Day, celebrated annually on February 2, is not only an opportune time to appreciate these special ecosystems, but also to understand why we destroyed so many until recently.
Michiganders especially need to know this history, and what residents of the Great Lakes State can do to write new chapters in the understanding and protection of wetlands. Over 6 million acres of Michigan wetlands remain—a vast number, but that’s 4 million acres less than existed when European settlement began in the mid-17th century.
Over 6 million acres of Michigan wetlands remain—a vast number, but that’s 4 million acres less than existed when European settlement began in the mid-17th century.
Today we know wetlands to be a valuable element of Michigan’s landscape, places that filter out pollutants, store floodwaters, provide habitat for diverse species of plants and animals, and provide recreation. We now recognize, in fact, that wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rain forests and coral reefs. It wasn’t always so.
To generations of Americans, wetlands were “associated with disease, dangerous animals, muck that can swallow you whole, poisonous gases, death, and decay. Words used to perpetuate that perception of wetlands as undesirable places include: dismal, miasma, putrid.”
Like other states in the 19th century, Michigan public policies actively encouraged the destruction of wetlands.
Policy of Destruction
Like other states in the 19th century, Michigan public policies actively encouraged the destruction of wetlands. These policy tools included drainage districts, ruled by powerful drain commissioners whose mission was to convert wetlands to “productive” uses like agriculture. Drain commissioners remain an important part of Michigan wetland law and policy, but some of these elected officeholders now devote considerable effort to protecting and even creating wetlands. For example, the Ingham County Drain Commissioner created Lansing’s Tollgate Wetland, which beautifies a neighborhood while reducing stormwater pollution.
Michigan did not have an effective law for wetland conservation until 1980, when the Wetland Protection Act took effect.
Michigan did not have an effective law for wetland conservation until 1980, when the Wetland Protection Act took effect. Its passage was complicated by development interests that wanted the freedom to destroy wetlands for human use and by organizations that claimed the law would trample on private property rights. But the law was carefully crafted to allow trade-offs where some wetlands could be converted to developed uses in exchange for the creation or protection of other wetlands, usually in the same watershed.
Before the 1980 law, Michigan had lost 4.2 million acres of its original wetlands endowment of 10.7 million acres, approximately 39%.
Before the 1980 law, Michigan had lost 4.2 million acres of its original wetlands endowment of 10.7 million acres, approximately 39%. Since the passage of the state’s wetlands protection law, the rate of wetland loss has declined dramatically, according to a 2014 state report. The total decline of wetland between 1978 and 2005 is estimated at 41,000 acres, with the rate of decline slowing between the periods 1978 to 1998 (loss of approximately 1,642 acres per year) and 1998 to 2005 (loss of approximately 1,157 acres per year).
A global treaty commemorates wetlands of significance on a worldwide level. Michigan’s Humbug Marsh is one of those wetlands, important for fish, wildlife and other values.
One step toward protecting wetlands is to know where they are.
Where Are the Wetlands?
One step toward protecting wetlands is to know where they are. Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy offers a wetland map viewer. FLOW’s immersive Groundwater Story Map also features a section on “unique ecosystems,” explaining in text and visuals that groundwater flows can create distinct surface environments where rare ecosystems thrive. Many of these are a type of wetland, or peatland, called a fen. Protection of peatland is a priority focus for the 2023 World Wetlands Day because of the terrestrial wetland ecosystems importance in combating climate change and promoting biodiversity.
What we once neglected and despised—wetlands—can become an appreciated, even cherished piece of the living world around us.
We celebrate wetlands today because we see the beauty in them, and because science has taught us much about their importance to a healthy, functioning environment. World Wetlands Day is a day of hope. What we once neglected and despised can become an appreciated, even cherished piece of the living world around us.